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Album of the Week

Review: Courtney Barnett’s Exhilarating ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: March 24, 2015
Label: Mom + Pop

Courtney Barnett’s voice is the first thing you hear on her first proper full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, character-sketching opening lines over a stomping ’70s Stones boogie: “Oliver Paul, 20 years old / Thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald / Wakes up at a quarter past nine / Fare-evades his way down the 96 tram line.” And within two sparsely worded couplets, there it all is: Quarter-life anxiety in the imposing face of everyday mundanity, set against the unfamiliar (but hardly incomprehensible) backdrop of Barnett’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia. It only gets richer, funnier, and more knife-twistingly relatable from there. And there might not be a more exciting sound in 2015 rock music than her voice.

Partly it’s her accent, a thick Down-Under drawl largely unfamiliar to North America, making her pronunciation of words like “existential” and “pseudoephedrine” (from 2013’s word-of-net breakout “Avant Gardener”) land with spine-tickling novelty. Partly it’s her unconventional vocal style, toggling between disaffected sing-speaking, throaty belting, and wispy cooing, jarring in how not jarring the transitions between her modes can be. But largely, it’s because unlike any singer-songwriter in recent memory, it’s just thrilling to hear what she’s going to say next: Her songs are page-turners like the best literary fiction, even when they’re not obviously narrative-based, and they’re endlessly quotable like few songs outside of hip-hop have been this decade.

As thematically representative as it is of the rest of Sometimes I Sit, that opening track, “Elevator Operator” which reveals its rooftop-bound, suicidal-seeming protagonist to be “just idling insignificantly,” wishing to play Sim City with the bystanders below — is something of a red herring. It’s the only third-person song on the album. As vivid and brilliant as Barnett’s character development is, she isn’t really interested in writing patronizing studies about everyday paragons of modern societal maladies à la Ray Davies or Damon Albarn. And that’s because she realizes that she’s in no way above the fray herself: Courtney is far too littered with her own personal foibles and social vulnerabilities to let any of her literary creations take the fall for her.

Barnett’s song subjects generally fall into two categories: The unavoidable perils of 21st-century living, and the necessary terrors of social interaction. The latter would encompass songs like “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” which takes on the age-old “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home” dilemma with yelped concerns like “You say you’ll sleep when you’re dead / I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep!” The former includes songs like “Dead Fox,” in which our narrator deliberates the merits of organic vegetable shopping, weighing cost concerns against rumors of nicotine-laced apples, and frets about animals spreading disease, declaring, “Sometimes I think a sneeze could be the end of us.” Sometimes it all converges on Courtney, as on “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY),” in which a couple late-night bouts of insomnia get her stressing about the oily residue in her kitchen and wondering about the meaning of her palm-lines, before sighing on the chorus: “I’m thinking of you, too.”

Barnett shares with Kurt Cobain the exceptional ability to find artistic strength in her personal weaknesses, to put all of her shit out there and still manage to sound like a goddamn rock star for doing so, not the least bit whiny or self-pitying. Kurt sang a song called “I Hate Myself and I Wanna Die” and sounded like a funny little shit doing so; Courtney sings, “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m all right” on “Small Poppies” and sounds even funnier. The insecurity of her lyrics is refreshing; not because crippling self-doubt and civil paranoia are anything new in rock music, but because she’s the incredibly rare anxiety-attacked lyricist who doesn’t let the worrying seep into her music. As frayed and fraught with peril as Courtney’s songs are, you’d never know it from her backing band’s performances, whether careening through the organ-led garage rock of “Debbie Downer” or stretching out on the gauzy epic “Kim’s Caravan” (which is also the best album climax to end on an incomplete sentence since “Fillmore Jive”). The tension of the songwriting is occasionally reflected in the band’s wire-taut interplay, but with different lyrics and a New Jersey affectation, Courtney Barnett could just be leading the best Saturday-night bar band you’ve ever heard.

Sometimes I Think is paced so the that tracks crash more than flow into one another, each one abruptly snapping you out of the hold of the previous. Consequently, every song stands out as a potential highlight, and favorites tend to shift with repeated listens: My current front-runner right now is probably “Aqua Profunda!,” a lean two-minute rave-up in which Courtney recounts with charming self-debasement her disastrous attempt to impress an attractive workout partner at her local swimming pool, before cramping up and passing out (“It’s a curse, my lack of athleticism”). But just behind it is “Small Poppies,” a swirling seven-minute waltz that features an exhausted-sounding Courtney trying to make sense of her post-breakup existence (“I don’t know quite who I am but man I am trying”) in between gorgeous squalls of reverb-soaked guitar soloing. Part of the excitement of each new dive back into the LP is seeing which cuts — and which lyrics, which melodies, which vocal inflections — will grab you anew, because it’s impossible to go a full listen without getting gobsmacked by something for the first time.

The one song that should hit everyone immediately is lead single “Pedestrian at Best.” From the opening seconds of its feedback intro, “Pedestrian” is electrifying, and the rush only grows throughout as Barnett raves in increasingly frenzied monotone over her band’s similarly repetitive, suspense-building crunch: “This, that and the other / Why even bother / You won’t be with me on my deathbed / But I’ll still be in your head!” Her verses are so overstuffed with syllables and panic that it always seems she’s going to either run out of time or run out of breath before she can even get to the chorus, but somehow she arrives just in time for the hook to explode in enthralling grunge release with the anthemic scream-along refrain: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” 

Ultimately, the primary reason why it’s the titans of alt-rock’s prime that get mentioned in conjuction with Courtney Barnett is because you have to go back about that far to find rock artists who are as self-possessed and singular as she is. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Sit doesn’t necessarily sound like a ’90s album, but it does sound like an album that was made in a land still roamed by such gigantic guitar-rock figures: Not just Cobain but Stephen Malkmus, Michael Stipe, Liz Phair, Eddie Vedder, the other Courtney. It doesn’t excite with sonic innovation and lyrical reinvention, it excites by just sounding really, really, really good, and coming from a voice that, in more ways than one, we’ve never quite heard before. And that in itself should make it one of the most thrilling albums you hear this year.